Forget, for a second, that the Bell 212 helicopter weighs 6,000 kilos empty. Yeah, that’s heavy, and it would hurt a lot of it fell on top of you (albeit briefly). Also forget that the Bell 212 hovering above your head is not empty, or it better not be, because it needs fuel to run on and that adds a lot of weight, too. Don’t ask me how much because I don’t know, and besides, it really doesn’t matter because at some point long before 6,000 kilos it’s irrelevant anyway.
The weight is not the issue. Or at least, it’s not the issue you’re thinking about when there’s a Bell 212 hovering above your head. It’s that rotor. There’s the downward rush of air, the rotor wash, which is fearsome enough. But that’s only an indication of what’s happening above you–as in, there’s a giant machine overhead, suspended by an even bigger rotating blade that, if it somehow came into contact with you, would produce what my friend Jake MacDonald once described as (he was imagining it, thankfully) “a fine pink mist.”
I have flown on a fair number of helicopters (all of them smaller ones like the Bell Jet Ranger, AStar, or Hughes 500), but never have I been asked to huddle down and wait for the chopper to land beside me. This particular trip was with Canadian Mountain Holidays, the people who literally invented heli-skiing (though I was heli-hiking with them, on assignment for Canada’s National Post newspaper). I don’t pretend to question CMH’s approach to getting in a helicopter, because they know more than anyone else about the subject and they have a perfect safety record. It’s just that I’m used to a helicopter landing far away from me, then walking up to it, bent over a lot more than is necessary, and getting in. (That said, I’ve also gotten in to a motionless helicopter, and then it starts up and takes off. Which is nice.)
So, this is the deal. Everyone scrunches down on the ground, holds on to their hats and sunglasses and anything else that might fly away and then waits for the pilot to set down the machine just a few feet away, right beside you. It’s pretty intimidating, to say the least. Then, when the helo is stable, everyone clambers in and you take off, heading for the lodge for a few rounds of beer before dinner.
Usually everything goes according to plan. But in this case, I don’t know what the problem was–high winds or unstable ground, or what–but the pilot was clearly not happy with the landing conditions. He came in four different times, got to about a meter-or-so off the ground, then flared back and circled before trying again. And again.
While my companions were probably thinking ‘Are we going to get out of here?’ I was thinking, ‘Yes! Do it again!’ Not that I liked it, it was an awful feeling of vulnerability, hunkering down while this ferociously menacing machine tried to land right beside your huddled, pathetically exposed self. But I did get a lot more chances at the shot I wanted to get.
I put on the widest lens I had with me, a 15mm fisheye on a full-frame Canon 5D. I had no focus worries, since with a small aperture on such an extreme wide-angle lens, the depth of field was just about limitless. But with the rotor-wash, the noise, the fear of a multi-thousand-kilo machine hanging above my head and a deafening WUMP-WUMP-WUMP sound going on, it’s pretty hard to point a camera at your subject, even if your camera has a 15mm fisheye attached to it.
The sun in the frame added something, but as luck would have it, the best frame was when the chopper blocked it out. I’d like to say it was all planned, but with that big, bad chopper whumping overhead, it was all just a matter of squinting eyes, pointing the camera up and pressing the shutter-button.
Which is to say, when you get more than one chance, don’t waste it.